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Death isn’t the worst thing they can do to you…Can take away your life but not give you death instead

The university-cum-concentration camp Kane describes in the text of Cleansed is one of the most politically resonant settings in modern drama. A place of learning renovated into a laboratory of death has more than a little satirical bite to it, but Sarah Kane and humour are often spoken of as strangers, even enemies, despite the strong skein of bleak comedy that all of her characters use to articulate their pain. Tinker, Grace, Graham, Rod, Carl, and Woman all suffer pain for the chance of experiencing an authentically human connection in their godless universe, but suffering in Kane’s text becomes a test of love and chance for absolution. The risk for any director is that they may feel compelled to stage the numerous violent acts in Cleansed in tooth and claw in order to avoid accusations of censoring or soft soaping Kane’s directions, but in so doing lose the heart of the play. Katie Mitchell’s obligation to realism in her production at the National Theatre is an instructive example of how Kane’s plays can be an ordeal for audiences when the characters are treated as subjects of abuse, rather than as complex figures attempting to live with as much dignity and purpose as the world allows them to.

Mitchell swaps the abandoned university for the less interesting choice of a distressed hospital, conveniently stocked with gurneys, wheelchairs, scalpels, masks, overalls and electro-shock therapy equipment – all the better for evoking images of state sanctioned torture. The sense of improvised and sudden violence meted out by the casually sadistic Tinker has a distinctly institutional flavour. But Kane was nothing if not a humanist and a director must balance the humanism of her characters with the demands ofCleansed’s poetic stage directions. How, exactly, does a director stage a rat eating open wounds, or flowers growing from the ground? Mitchell chooses to stage the violent acts as realistically as possible– nothing is left to the imagination. Rape, castration, electrocution, force-feeding, and bodily mutilation are created to a squeamishly uncomfortable degree. The realism of the violence makes absolution for the characters an impossible state to achieve; Mitchell forces the audience to examine torture on its own terms without the comfort of contextual commentary. But without a concrete political context the violence inflicted on the characters becomes rather generalised. Given that the escalating atrocities committed by IS have become a semi-permanent feature on the news, the chillingly mute and hooded attendants who obey Tinker’s commands evoke images of modern terrorism with ease, but these links are never given enough attention to gain any added meaning. Rod and Carl’s relationship offers a potential vehicle to explore how many states continue to persecute homosexuals, whilst Grace’s forced gender reassignment raises highly pertinent questions on the politics of transitioning. Alex Eales’s design provokes links with British society and geo-politics through its debt to brutalism, which in the public imagination remains synonymous with the state, but they remain implicit elements that carry little interpretive weight.

Having Grace onstage throughout the 100 minute run time turns Cleansed into her personal nightmare, or perhaps even an assemblage of her last day on earth. We first meet her standing on concrete steps watching her brother Graham have heroin forcefully injected into his eyeball. Arriving at the prison she is told by Tinker that Graham is dead. After asking for his clothes Robin comes onstage wearing Graham’s suit, whereupon Grace orders him to strip naked, takes off her dress, and dons the suit. From here we follow Grace and Graham towards some kind of reconciliation. Michelle Terry’s performance is steely: Grace becomes a dogged survivor, determined to face hers and her brother’s persecutors with bravery. Yet her ambiguous status as either prisoner or spectre obscures the play’s internal logic: Is the action taking place over one night, as the dawn ending implies, or over many fractured times in Grace’s mind? Who are Rod and Carl to Grace – fellow prisoners, or figments of her imagination? Foregrounding Grace’s journey has the unfortunate consequence of sideling Rod and Carl who are anything but incidental. Rod’s response to Carl’s declarations of love that “I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you” typifies Kane’s motif of promises between lovers being shattered by the brutal yet heartfelt truism that commitment is a fragile thing. Mitchell sets this scene in an interrogation room monitored by Tinker and his attendants while an ominous tape recorder is placed on a nearby table. The intimacy of the scene is undermined by the panicked delivery of the actors who signal something nasty is about to about (Carl has a metal pole inserted in his rectum and has his tongue cut out). In the original text the conversation and the torture occur in separate scenes. Conjoining them makes Rod’s refusal to reciprocate Carl’s avowals of affection strangely callous whilst robbing the dialogue of its emotional nuance. Watching Carl undergo all manner of hells does, however, give the sex scene between him and Rod a sense of urgency for love that other scenes demand in the dialogue but sorely lack onstage. This is especially true of the scenes between Graham and Grace, whose love-making is oddly remote. The contrast with Rod and Carl’s kiss is stark; kissing in slow motion, Grace, naked, eases her way in-between the two men, who remain blissfully unaware of her. Moments such as these provide a welcome respite from Tinker’s sadism, which is played with such a degree of calculation by Tom Mothersdale that his actions become leaden and lack discernible purpose.

The production’s most poignant moments come during the tempo changes, when movement is slowed down until the hurting stops. As Rod says, “There’s only now”. Tinker’s machinations can be interpreted as an escape from a future that might very well be even more hellish than a present. His murder of Woman is testament to his trust in violence as a way of absolving himself of commitment. Love is the most consistent theme in Kane’s plays and her belief that it is never more needed than in times of suffering is well realised in this production. Unfortunately, death offers the only redemption for the characters, making this version of Cleansed as an intensely immoral piece. Presenting violence as the only authentic reality robs the play of its visual beauty. Moments such as flowers shooting up from the ground lose their symbolic value by becoming magical and fleeting incidents. Whilst Mitchell’s commitment to portraying violence as realistically as possible makes necessary demands on the audience to recognise the human consequence of suffering it allows little room to focus on the nuances of the relationships, which shift in more emotionally satisfying ways than this production is able to convey.

Cleansed is playing at the National Theatre until Thursday 5 May

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